This one’s for all you tricksters, hipsters, and prophets in the sky. As promised: my first music post. The artist is The Cat Empire; the album is Steal the Light, the band’s 2013 venture.
All credit goes to my dear brother for opening my ears to the magic that is Cat Empire; I never would have discovered these Australian geniuses on my own. Their sound is explosive, a wildly varied blend of ska, jazz, and funky rock with a distinctively Latin flavor. Delicious. Of course, I’m a sucker for anything Latin; they had me at that first soulful cry of a trumpet. But this band writes the kind of music that only gets better the more you listen, the more you explore the lyrical intricacies and idiosyncrasies of sound. I’ve been listening to Steal the Light on repeat since August. It’s fantastic. It shifts seamlessly between mellow funk lines and thrilling brass fanfares, between railing against materialism and crooning words of love. The album has a palpable texture that leads me on new tangents of exploration every time I run through it. Sometimes the trumpet catches my ear; sometimes the percussion; sometimes the fantastically witty lyrics. It’s a delightfully intriguing blend of dance music with profoundly encouraging meanings, inspiring both body and mind through the course of the album. Now, let’s get into some tracks…
I shall begin at the beginning, with the song that introduced me to Cat Empire: “Prophets in the Sky.” God, this song is almost indescribable, but I’ll do my best. For one thing, the music is incredible—a quick Latin pulse, some bold brass, quick ear-catching interjections in Spanish. The initial thrilling fanfare hurls you into an impassioned mess of questions, one that intoxicates you with its sounds and intrigues you with its words. I honestly can’t tell you what those words might mean; they’re still a mystery to me, so the song continues to fascinate. Whatever it is, it evokes some sense of primitive questioning that can’t quite be explained. Trust me, it’s brilliant. I can’t do it justice here; you’ll just have to listen for yourself.
“Can you imagine a love like that?”
All of the fast tracks are amazing; to discuss all of them would take another solid thousand words, so I’ll spare you. One of my favorites, though, is “Go,” an inventive diatribe against materialism. It feels like an enormous release of madness—which works, considering their opinion on the folly of materialism. The music, though, is one of the most incredibly compelling components of the song. A steady scale progression of the low brass balances against the wild flourishes of the high brass, simultaneously creating senses of menace and frenzy that warn of chaos. That warning is clear: let go of materialism. It’s an impressively commanding song, with some of the most pointed subject matter of the album. Now, though, I’ll move on to the slower tracks, which are delightfully deep wells of interpretive opportunity.
“Every little viper’s not your friend—and a million dollars is not how this story ends.”
The mellower tracks introduce a deep, penetrating richness that sneaks into your soul and lodges there, using sound to carve out a vulnerable little open space, only to fill it with words. “Steal the Light” is the first slow track on the album, and it took awhile to grow on me—probably because it follows “Prophets in the Sky,” which doesn’t exactly leave you in the mood for mellow. But it still grabs your attention with the almost-immediate introduction of the song’s heartbeat, a rolling bass line that creates a smooth, rhythmic undertone throughout the piece. The lyrics, once you catch them, are simply exquisite. They evoke a sense of that constant internal questioning that digs at all of us, the kind that makes you wonder what would happen if you just decided to fuck it all and did whatever the hell you wanted to, if you would just “open your eyes / and run into the clear,” as they say. The song appeals to a certain existential loneliness within all of us (or at least me. I can’t speak for the rest of you, I suppose) that eats away at any manner of confidence; the triumphant trumpets and anthemic vocals of “Steal the Light” encourage you to aspire to spontaneity. Such subtle inspiration is compelling.
“What if I’m lonely? What if the sky should fall and disappear?”
One of the relatively few love songs on the record, “Open Up Your Face” isn’t your typical ballad. For one thing, the music begs the listener to take it easy after the intensity of the previous song in the track listing (“Like a Drum”). The brass croons sweetly, soothing the ear while bongos establish a steady, calming rhythm; later, that rhythm progresses into a slow march, equally calming. But in terms of content, it’s painfully realistic, wrought through with earthy metaphors and gritty honesty. It’s that realism that makes this such a deeply beautiful song. Love is neither a storybook romance nor a tale of destruction; it is pain and glory, despair and trust, anguish and delight, and somehow this song manages to capture these feelings without sounding quite so dramatic. The language is simply stunning. The opening lines:
“While the traffic hums
When the madness comes…
Like a flower that reaches out its fingers to the rain,
Like a bird that flies above the gutters and the graves,
Open up your face.”
How’re those for metaphors? So unassuming, yet so evocative, they simultaneously capture both the realization that love is, in fact, an everyday matter and the sense that it can still elevate you above the quotidian. And it suggests that you can get away from the occasional pain of the everyday by getting into love. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like a love song until the chorus of “And I’ll know you want me, I’ll want you.” It’s really quite refreshing to be shown love rather than told about it, making this track yet another deliciously inventive song to tease the mind as well as the ear.
“Like a human cannonball that hears the match strike flame; like a prisoner listening to the rumble of the train…”
Finally, the last track in my long-winded discourse on Cat Empire. “Wild Animals” took awhile to grow on me. The vocals are a little strange, it’s a tad repetitive, and the lyrics progress a little too quickly to catch at first. But then I understood the lyrics. And they are astonishingly great. In a similar vein as “Steal the Light,” the track carries a theme of letting everything go and embracing the self. This song, though, directly questions the reasoning behind giving up intellectual and personal freedom, asking, “why’re you living your life behind bars? / Why’re you living your life in the past?” in its first compelling verse. It is a powerful reminder of what matters: nature, freedom, self-expression, authenticity of spirit. It pleads that we avoid living in bad faith—that state of self-deception in which we blame our social context for our actions rather than taking responsibility for ourselves—encouraging instead the choice to confront the conventions that limit our lives. It’s a beautiful message, really. And they make it impressively personal with this concluding verse, which anyone who has ever worked in an office can relate to:
“Look out the tiny window frame that sits behind your desk—
Past the big computer screens and the jars of fountain pens.
What are you doing in this prison with your psychopathic boss,
With your brokenhearted mornings and your backstabbing friends?”
As such a deeply touching and inspiring song, you’d think it would sound serious as well. But the music practically scampers for four minutes with an easy, rolling, cheerful melody. It sounds like what it discusses, which makes it even more subtly powerful. It’s one hell of a song—certainly one of my favorites.
You may have noticed that I truly adore this group. Cat Empire is a refreshing departure from most music—whatever you listen to, there’s not much like these guys. The accessibility of their music and lyrics is a rarity; personally, I think they’re universally appealing, although I’m sure some disagree. But with this fascinating convergence of genre and content, it’s hard to be disappointed in Cat Empire–and let’s be honest, there’s nothing catchier than a good Latin beat. Check out Steal the Light; it’s on Spotify, but it’s also definitely worth buying. I promise you will be dancing halfway through “Prophets in the Sky,” and rest assured that your mind will dance as well.
And remember: “Don’t let them kill the wild animals inside of you!”